It’s been 38 years since 35 people died when a ship rammed the span over Tampa Bay.
Mel and Julie Russell were separated in the spring of 1980, though there was talk of reconciliation. He was living in Room 338 of Wilson Men’s Club in downtown Chicago at the time, while she was staying with her stepsister in north Sarasota.
One night Julie called Mel to inform him a rat had bitten their young son. She feared it was rabid and this, of course, was a concern to Mel. So he scraped up $125 for a bus ticket, and at 12:30 p.m. on May 7, 1980 hopped on Greyhound No. 4508, bound for Miami, with a stop in Sarasota, to check on his son.
Julie was thrilled as she waited at the bus station for Mel to arrive on the morning of May 9. She was hoping Mel would stay in Sarasota for good and their family would be together again. She was so excited, in fact, that she had been out apartment hunting and couldn’t wait to spring the surprise on her estranged husband.
Her contained excitement soon turned to pulsating panic, however, as she heard the news from a coin-operated television at the bus station: A 600-foot freighter had struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, sending a Greyhound, six cars and a pickup truck hurtling into Tampa Bay. Of the 35 people who perished, 23 were on the bus. Was it Mel’s bus, she wondered?
Several of the deceased — as well as few survivors — had connections to the area, and the 38th anniversary of the disaster is a time to remember their stories as researched through various news accounts.
Julie Russell knew for certain her husband was among the dead when she was told a body had been recovered with the word “Helen” tattooed on the right thigh, though it was unclear who “Helen” was. A year after the accident she unsuccessfully sued Greyhound, and in court her attorney said she had been in psychiatric care for a month because her husband’s death “drove her over the edge.”
Mel Russell’s body was cremated in Sarasota.
Also unsuccessfully suing Greyhound was the mother of Tawanna McClendon, who had sickle cell anemia and was studying to be a nurse at a community college in Tallahassee. She was on her way home to Palmetto for Mother’s Day when the bus went off the bridge and is buried in Memphis Cemetery in Palmetto.
Also on the bus that morning were Alvin and Barbara Stone — or at least that was the name on their tickets. In actuality, Alvin Stone was Woodrow Triplett, a laborer from Sarasota, and Barbara Stone was really Sandra Louise Davis.
Triplett and Davis were on the run from the law for check forgery in Georgia. They boarded the Greyhound near Bainbridge, Georgia, and were headed to Sarasota to start a new life. Triplett is buried at Oaklands-Woodlawn Cemetery in Sarasota.
The oldest person on the bus was Gerta Hedquist of Punta Gorda. She was 92 at the time, having been born in 1888. Hedquist suffered from acute arthritis and had just been cleared by her doctor to travel to her birthplace of Sweden for the last time in her life when the accident happened.
Every disaster has odd circumstances that have either led to a death or prevented one. Jim Pryor falls into the former category.
Pryor lived in Seminole and each day he would drive his El Camino over the Skyway to Bradenton, where he was a manager at Key Manufacturing.
On the morning the Skyway collapsed Pryor forgot to put his trash cans out in the street before he left for Bradenton. He didn’t get far before going back home to do it. Had he continued driving to Bradenton he would have lived.
The only person to survive the fall was a man named Wes MacIntire. He was from Gulfport but worked in Palmetto and drove the bridge each morning. He also worked at Tropicana in Bradenton for a time.
MacIntire’s blue Ford truck fell from the Skyway and bounced off the bow of the freighter. He was able to pry open his door underwater, swim to the surface and find a piece of the bridge to cling to.
Each May 9 after the accident, around 7:30 a.m., MacIntire and his wife would walk out on the remnants of the old bridge, holding hands, and stare out into the water, a survivor somberly remembering those who weren’t as fortunate.
MacIntire, who also survived D-Day, died in 1989 at 65.
Betty McCoy — who drove south on the bridge each morning to her job at Moody Elementary in Bradenton — was another of the fortunate ones.
She just made it over the bridge that morning and continued toward Bradenton, oblivious to the horror of what was unfolding behind her.
When she arrived at school that dark morning, people raced up to her car with tears in their eyes and hugged her tightly. She soon found out why.
Meanwhile, at a bus station in Sarasota, a lady hoping for a fresh start with her husband eagerly awaited Greyhound No. 4508 to pull in from Chicago.